7 August 2005

Brough Scott at World Athletics Championships in Helsinki

There are few frustrations more bitter than that of promise unfulfilled. While Jason Gardener and Marlon Devonish both battled through to the semi-finals, it was the sight of Mark Lewis-Francis trailing home in a distant 10.53 to Justin Gatlin in the first 100 metres heat that brought most disappointment in a cloudy Helsinki sky.

The man who took the world junior title as a 17 year old in 2000 is beginning to run out not only of excuses but of expectation. It seems an age ago that we watched him hold off Maurice Greene to clinch the 100m relay gold in Athens. There have been flashes of form this season but also a positive test for cannabis and what seems like a long-standing hamstring injury.

“I thought I was fit to run,” he said as he hurried away afterwards. “But obviously I wasn’t. It seemed all right for the first part of the race but then it felt that it would go if I went for it.” In despair he rested his head on the railing. What was hailed as the most perfect sprinting talent to ever wear a British vest had gold shoes beneath a blue figure-hugging running suit. Would that he could re-find their shine.

A few yards away Justin Gatlin was holding jovial court. With Portugal’s Francis Obikwelu, he had been the fastest of the 100m qualifiers and now had time to leave his listeners smiling. “I feel great,” he said. “I just feel lucky to be in this shape and I can’t wait for the semi-finals.” How Lewis-Francis fans would wish those words to ring true for their own.

The sense of doom had been there in the morning. The young man from Birmingham lined up next to Gatlin in the inside lane of the fourth heat of the 100m opening round coming up to 11.30. Gatlin looked big, loose and commanding, Lewis-Francis shorter, extra chunky and very tense. He got away fast from the gun but soon the body was coming up with the strain as he battled to stay with the champion.

Out wide we could see the yellow and green vest of the South African Leigh Julius in clear second. But surely Lewis-Francis could hang on to third place and automatic entry into the next round. No, the upper body was looking heavy, the bite going from his spikes and right on the line the 33-year-old Japanese runner Nobuhara Asahara edged him out of it.

In the 2001 World Championships at Edmonton an 18-year-old Mark Lewis-Francis had won his heat and quarter-final, setting a world junior record and a personal best 9.97sec on the way. Now he had battled, he was a sorry figure holding his thigh with 10.40sec on the clock and only the hope of being amongst the eighth fastest losers to keep him in the competition. He was joint sixth, four heats to go.

The mathematics saved him. In heat five the Canadian runner also clocked 10.40sec when fourth behind the flying Leonard Scott. But when Marlon Devonish stylishly won heat six, the runner from Botswana could make only 10.71 in fourth. Heat seven saw a Saudi Arabian runner take 10.45sec in the same position, so as Jason Gardener lined up for the final heat, it would have taken a career-best from Equitorial Guinea’s Reginaldo Micha Ndong. “Reggie” clocked 11.47sec at the last World Championships when only 16. He is his country’s finest but yesterday’s 11.27sec was yards short of putting our Mark out of the afternoon.

The inevitable came at five minutes to five. Afterwards Lewis-Francis cast a morose and miserable figure as he talked of his hamstring injury and rued his lack of form. A season that began with a New Year’s honours MBE for his Olympic heroics looks to have imploded. There will be renewed calls for him to quit his Birmingham comfort zone and long-standing but abidingly provincial coach Steve Platt for the higher achieving sprinting culture across the Atlantic.

Figures as senior as Michael Johnson and Gatlin’s coach Trevor Graham have said that Lewis-Francis needs not only a change of scene but a change of lifestyle. It seems harsh to be so condemnatory about someone who is not 23 until next month. But Gatlin himself is only six months older. Lewis-Francis definitely has God-given talents. He owes it to himself to have a fresh shot at fulfilling them.

Meanwhile, there is a desperate, defensive surliness about his heavy-set face far removed from the simple, bright-eyed ease of the young tyro we all first met a full five years ago. Back then he had so much going for him. It may already be too late to regain the hardness of mind and body that a champion needs. And without it Mark Lewis-Francis will be only further proof of that deadly maxim “those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising”.

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